Dick Lee, who is wrestling with a case of laryngitis, has just finished a long, detailed desciption of how the valves in an automobile engine allow fuel to enter and leave the cylinders at precisely the right moment. A genuine auto engine carcass sits on his Takoma Park coffee table, surrounded by seven attentive students.
"Does anybody have any questions?" Lee asks. But it is past 9 p.m., when his class in "Basic Auto Maintenance" should have ended, and there is a feeling in the air that, all things considered, Lee would perfer not to hear any questions just now.
Very hesitangtly, one student raises her hand and Lee, with a sigh, asks her to speak her mind.
"What's a valve?" asks the student.
Astonishment creeps over Lee's grease-scarred face. He nods slowly, then backtracks through about 15 minutes of his lecture to commence the explanation all over again.
Eleswhere, as Lee is clarifying what he feels was perfectly clear to begin with, eager Washingtonians are studying back massage, oyster cookery, and assertiveness. On other nights, classes in juggling, white-water rafting, basic veterinary medicine for cats and dogs, and clogging are offered.
The institution that offers these courses is called the "Open University of Washington," and the title was not chosen frivolously. Open U. is about as open as a university could be.
(The Open University of Washington is a completely separate institution from the Open University of America, which has offices in Hyattsville. That institution, which was founded in 1968 offers no courses of its own, but helps working adults and members of the military get college degrees by combining courses taken at recognized college with credit for work experience and military experience,.
The catalogue is the first tip-off that this is not the typical institution of higher education. Your Yale and Harvard for instance, don't generally work professors names artfully into course titles but at Open U., two of Professor Elsie Bliss's courses are called "Aging A Blissful Delusion and "Single Bliss".
"Single" says the catalogue entry, means free, no hassle, stress-free. NEVER FEEL GUILTY AGAIN. Move over into the middle of the bed. You're the boss."
Another of Bliss's courses called "Dates and Nuts" addresses the problem of what to do when you find yourself out for an evening with someone who is mentally deranged.
Or if that's too heavy for you, you can enroll in "Let's Wax Philosophical" with professor Art Gliner. "Wanted: 14 people to share thoughts, ideas and values about living, dying, playing, working, loving - whatever . . . Not a heavy discussion, just a plesant, informal way to meet people and exhange ideas and opinions. Limited to the first 7 men and 7 women who register. Coffee and tea provided."
Or if you want food for the stomach as well as the mind, you can register for "bagels" with professor Marcia Mazur, who bakes bread under the trade name "Yeast of Eden." Mazur is not wedded to any particular formula for what should go into a bagel. She teaches a variety of recipes, provides a variety of toppings, and ecourages her students to experiment - "You can put in some wheat germ if you want health," she advises.
The President, registrar, dean of students, bursar and dean of admissions at Open U. is Sandra L. Bremer, a 32-year-old, former drama student, Peace Corps volunteer and Capitol Hill secretary.
Bremer took over Open U, in its infancy from founder Alex Fraser, now her busiest faculty member. "It seemed like a fun thing to do," she says simply, "so I did it."
When Bremer prepared the first OPen U. catalogue - for the spring of 1975 - there were 24 courses, and about 100 students enrolled. "We used to stand on the corner of Connecticut and K and hand out catalogues at noon," she says. "Once I sent a friend out to deliver catalogues and told him to bring all the rubber bands back".
Today there are 159 courses, and according to Bremer 2,400 students. The university is no longer run from her apartment but from a friendly, plant-filled office at 3333 Connecticut Ave. NW, where a staff of three, Bremer included answers the phones, processes course applications, and sends out admission tickets.
Tuition - anywhere from $2 to $30 a course - is split equally between the teacher and the university, with the university's share covering, among other expenses, the cost of printing 65,000 catalogues for each two-months school term.
Bremer is constanly scouting around for new faculty members, and never knows where she'll find one. "I was at a party once where there was a bartender. I walked up to her and asked if she could teach a course on bartending and she said yes. That was that." Most of her teachers, she says, "are teaching something they really love as a hobby."
The most popular classes these days are disco dancing and do-it-yourself subjects like auto mechanics and plumbing.
Auto mechanics and plumbing meet four times, but the majority of Open U's courses are onenight affairs. "We just didn't have that much success with long-term classes," says Bremer. "The kind of people we're attracting are very busy people who don't want to enter into a long-term commitment.
They are also attracting, she acknowledges, students with more than education on their minds. "People are social beings. They want to meet people. If you can take a class in art appreciation and meet someone in the process, that's all the better . . . a lot of single people are looking for something to do other than go to a singles bar."